One year after their outstanding but all too short Moon Knight run from 2014, the team of writer Warren Ellis, artist Declan Shalvey and colourist Jordie Bellaire followed up with their own creation, the 15-issue series Injection. The following refers to its first volume which collects #1-5.
The backstory, gradually revealed in bits and pieces, is basically this: the “Cultural Cross-Contamination Unit” (CCCU), a British think tank, is tasked to predict the future, but they don’t like the predictions they come up with: “Everything slows down. Everything gets tangled up. Everything stops racing forward.” – “We reach a peak of novelty and innovation and enter a long trough.” – “The CCCU’s final finding was that innovation was going to flatten out and the future was going to be a slow and difficult time.” So in order to prevent the future from becoming “boring”, they decide to make it more interesting by designing a new kind of artificial intelligence and injecting it into the Internet.
But of course that goes terribly wrong. A few years later, in the present day, the AI starts killing and abducting people, and the former CCCU members try to stop it.
Which brings us to our protagonists: a typical Warren Ellis superhero team. Granted, they don’t wear masks and capes, but each of them has superhuman powers in a way. Robin is a John Constantine type occultist, Maria is a genius scientist who wields a sort of magical energy sword made by Robin, Simeon is a James Bond type special agent, Brigid is a hacker, and Vivek is a Sherlock Holmes type private detective.
So once more the fate of the world (or at least Britain) lies in the hands of a few people. However, in terms of politics, there is an interesting difference between the CCCU and other Ellis superheroes such as the Freakangels, Moon Knight, or Planetary: the former is co-funded by a fictional UK Ministry of Time and Measurement, a mysterious company called FPI, and the fictional Lowlands University (which could be either public or private). Thus the CCCU was created by an unholy alliance of the public and the private sectors, which continues to exert varying degrees of influence over the former team members. Despite the government involvement, however, the CCCU and its related institutions operate in secret, i.e. their actions are not accounted for to the tax payers who ultimately fund them.
In all of their interactions with the ex-CCCU members, the various government bodies and FPI come across as disturbingly evil and powerful (though not all-powerful – they still rely on the CCCU to fight the Injection). A more harmless example: when a victim of the Injection is found dead in Dublin and the Irish police can’t quite explain (or believe) how it happened, they decide to cover it up instead of publicly exposing the connection to the CCCU – “The boy in the computer room would be explained away as a freak electrical-fire victim or some such. There would be compensation and the like.”
A more drastic example: in the beginning of the comic, we are introduced to Maria as an inmate in a bleak mental asylum. We don’t learn much about her treatment there, except that she seems to be held there against her will, is tube-fed instead of given real food, and that the wardens wear masks. It soon turns out that the FPI is behind all of this: they are responsible for her being held at the asylum, and they let her out only to carry out work – investigating and neutralising paranormal threats – for them. And even then she is closely watched by another FPI employee.
Thus Injection basically combines the ‘weak government’ trope (in which self-empowered individuals such as superheroes pull the strings; see above) with the ‘abusive government’ (as seen in Ellis’s Dark Blue) and ‘evil corporation’ tropes. But there is more to this comic. It is also a parable of the power and danger of science. When left unchecked and supplied with opulent funds, a handful of scientists can create a global threat by bringing about the Singularity, i.e. artificial superintelligence that eventually rises up against humanity. This Computer Science based threat is new and perhaps even scarier than e.g. the classic fears of scientists building a super bomb, or creating a black hole in a particle accelerator, because these latter ones require more resources, resulting in more political involvement and public visibility.
Injection seems to suggest that anyone with the right skills and Internet access could build such a superintelligence, and they could be doing it right now without anyone noticing. This is a new twist in Ellis’s politics: the self-empowered individuals here are not fantastical superhero characters – at least the CCCU are not overtly using their quasi-superhuman powers when creating the Injection -, they could be scientists and hackers that exist in the real world. Ironically, by establishing the CCCU, the government unwittingly undermines its own authority, transferring the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order from democratically legitimised institutions to individuals operating above the law.
A related issue is the nature of the work that FPI does: they carry out archaeological excavations, a task traditionally associated with public research institutions or government bodies. But the FPI does it “to find new exploitable resources”, or, as Maria puts it, “poking at things for the greater glory of the bloody company”. Of course, private excavation companies are already carrying out archaeological digs in the real world, but they usually do so on behalf of the government who get to keep any culturally important finds (and openly publish the outcomes). The idea here is that ancient artifacts are heritage and as such belong to the entire populace, not only to the finder or the landowner. The FPI in Injection, being an evil corporation, obviously has different ideas. They are secretive about their operations, but at the same time the government appears to cooperate with them, so maybe this is a case of a public-private partnership gone wrong. Or is Ellis subtly critiquing the whole concept of the government outsourcing important tasks to private companies?
This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.
Black Science #35-36
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: Dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay and his ex-wife Sara are stranded at the ‘Interdimensional Institute for Marital Restoration’. In issue #35, said Institute sends Sara to another dimension in which her dream of becoming a musical actress on Broadway has come true. Sara is shown performing in her musical on three panels; musical notes around her speech balloons (plus her dramatic poses) indicate that she’s singing. It’s hard to tell what the music is supposed to sound like – if it is being performed by an orchestra or band, we don’t get to see it. Which says quite a lot about Broadway musicals and the end to which they are invoked here: to Grant and Sara, it doesn’t matter which genre the music belongs to, what the lyrics are about, or whether it is good or bad; the only thing that matters is that Sara has made it to Broadway.
In issue #36 there is another instance of music being performed. Grant and Sara are in a dream-like world in which they attend a wedding party. They meet old friends there, except everything and everyone looks like it’s 1920. Once more the music is depicted in three panels: the first two show wedding guests dancing, and in the background of the third we see the musicians playing; apparently a four-piece jazz band. Interestingly, there are no floating musical notes here, and before the musicians are shown, the only things that indicate music is being played are the dancers and a character prompting Grant and Sara to dance too.
The rest: The series is already announced to end with issue #42, which is a pity. Still, having the same creative team (except for the colourist) create a story of almost 1000 pages is a rare treat nowadays, and it makes for a coherent and homogeneous comic. Black Science is a complex and finely crafted psychological science fiction story – perhaps one of the finest in comic form.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Continuing from the previous post, let’s turn to a gender bias test that some people believe to be superior to the Bechdel Test. In an interview last year, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel) said,
Nevermind the Bechdel test, try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. They have to be protagonists, not devices.
This seems even more difficult to put into practice than the Bechdel Test. Is there a scholarly sound way to determine if a story “works”? Anyway, I’m going to try this test with two recent comic books written by Rick Remender. Mind you, that selection doesn’t mean I think Rick Remender is a sexist writer or anything. It’s just that he’s writing a lot of comic books at the moment, and by pure coincidence I happened to have read two of them, Black Science #1 and Uncanny Avengers #14. And who knows, maybe this comparison will reveal something about different attitudes towards gender issues at Image and Marvel, respectively.
The science fiction story Black Science (art by Matteo Scalera and Dean White, published by Image) starts with dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay running away from fish monsters. He is accompanied by a sexy lamp in a space suit, and his internal monologue is addressed at another sexy lamp. Weird, but not that important for the story. His flight leads him to the den of some frog men, who have captured and enslaved a sexy lamp. McKay frees that lamp and returns her to the fish men, whereupon they become less hostile. There are some more sexy lamps towards the end of the issue, but they are not that significant.
Overall, the story works almost as well with sexy lamps instead of female characters. The “damsel in distress” motif at work here is almost as objectifying as turning her into a lamp.
Uncanny Avengers #14 (pencils by Steve McNiven, inks by John Dell, colours by Laura Martin, published by Marvel) is part of a somewhat convoluted story. The gist is that one sexy lamp with magical powers wants to perform a ritual to defeat the two major supervillains of this story (one of which is a sexy lamp), while two other superheroes (again, one of them a sexy lamp) try to stop her because they think the ritual will help the villains. Of course, this conflict is resolved by means of a lot of fighty-fighty, in the course of which one sexy lamp kills another, only to be killed in turn by one of the supervillains.
Clearly, this fighting and killing makes much more sense when done by the Scarlet Witch and Rogue, rather than by some sexy lamps. Therefore, Uncanny Avengers #14 passes the Sexy Lamp Test, whereas Black Science #1 fails.
Does that mean Uncanny Avengers is less gender biased then Black Science? Not necessarily. The problem with the Sexy Lamp Test is, it “rewards” comics with female characters who say and do a lot, but it doesn’t judge what they say and do. Despite their importance to the story, the female characters in Uncanny Avengers are “lazily” written – all women in this comic book could just as well be men (and vice versa) and nothing would change (except for Wonder Man and Scarlet Witch becoming a gay couple). These female superheroes are just male superheroes with breasts. On the other hand, the femaleness of the enslaved fish woman in Black Science reveals the society of the frog men as patriarchic, and thus at least serves a purpose within the story.
Therefore, I don’t think the Sexy Lamp Test is better at detecting gender bias than the Bechdel Test. They just point out different aspects of gender bias (in speech vs. in narrative function), so maybe they are best used in combination.